I. A Gift from Ronda
This is a piece I wrote and posted about ten years ago.
Pet ownership is a commitment, and when you commit to something, you become emotionally engaged in its well-being, and your own sense of self expands to include it. Kim and I learned this, again, with the dozen pets we raised in our home.
Some people have dogs for pets. I’m told that dogs appeal to those who value their loyalty and unconditional love. Other people love their cats, which may reflect values of independence and hard-won affection. Birds are also popular, as are fish, perhaps for those who like to see wildness contained. Kids might baby their pet hamsters or guinea pigs. College students and guys with “size matters” issues might keep large snakes. Seems like there’s a pet for just about everyone’s psychological needs.
My wife raised caterpillars. Her friend Ronda phoned to say, “I have some extra Cecropia Moth eggs—do you want some?” Twenty of them soon arrived, in the form of pre-caterpillar eggs about the size of poppy seeds (though they don’t share that spicy taste).
I’m not sure what psychological needs are met by caterpillars.
Looking after eggs is every bit as exciting as it sounds. Kim set up the eggs in kitchen storage dishes, complete with moistened cotton balls to keep the humidity right.
A few days later, Kim became a caterpillar wrangler. Only thirteen of the twenty hatched, which turned out to be plenty. Looking at the tiny caterpillars was, for me, at least twice as exciting as looking at the eggs because I could now see them with my naked eye.
My job was to fetch lilac leaves for them to eat, and I felt a sense of pride when I saw tiny notches in the edges of the leaves and tiny dots of poop left behind as evidence of their feasting. (Note to Scrabble and crossword fans: their poop is called “frass.”)
Pet ownership, as I said, is a commitment. Kim told me at breakfast that our travel would be restricted for the next 6-8 weeks, as they required fresh leaves on a daily basis. She thought Charlie, a retired Ford worker who lives next door, could be trusted to “take care of” them if we wanted to go somewhere for a weekend. I could hardly wait to see the look on Charlie’s face when we asked him.
The commitment would last for about a year, but fortunately, or not, most of that year would find our pets in cocoons stationed in our unheated garage. We hoped to open the garage door one day to find a flock of Cecropia Moths—the largest moths in North America, with wingspans of 5-7 inches! The females would emit pheromones, attracting males from as far away as seven miles. I wanted to witness an orgy -- one that I had a part in creating.
After the orgy would be a laying of eggs, and then the beautiful moths would die. Nothing we could do about that, for the moths don’t even have mouth parts with which to eat. It made me want to be zealous in supplying leaves for hungry caterpillars.
Meanwhile, Kim became attached to the thirteen little guys. We started naming them, though that was problematic because they were hard to tell apart. We singled out one independent soul who preferred to wander away from his peers, who clung to the leaves they were eating. (We named this one Reilly after our independently spirited granddaughter.) Research told us that our immediate future would bring a series of “instars” (a spectacularly appropriate word!) where the little cats molt and grow, and we’d be able to see their colors, bumps and bristles (aka “tubercles”), and perhaps even observe their behavior. We decided to hold off on the naming until we could actually see them.
I did understand about the commitment we were making. What I did not understand at the time was the level of emotional engagement that we had signed up for. Our caterpillar wrangling was more than observing and photographing a miracle. We would participate in it.
II. Herding Cats
One of the many advantages of raising caterpillars is improved vocabulary. We’ve learned words such as “instar,” which refers to the stage between skin-sheddings as the caterpillar outgrows its casing. And no, “skin-sheddings” is not the correct term. The process is called “ecdysis,” and the shed skin is “exuvia,” which the new instar immediately eats. So when Kim and I discussed our herd (not sure of the term) of caterpillars, we said things like, “Oh, look! She’s ecdysing into her fifth instar! Get the camera!
You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute – I didn’t think ‘ecdyse’ was a verb.” And true, the dictionaries have not kept up with the fast-changing world of caterpillar vocabulary. You might also wonder, as I did, why to emerge from an egg as a caterpillar, and then to emerge from its cocoon as a Cecropia Moth is to “eclose,” when it’s an opening, not a closing. And you might also be thinking, “How did you know that caterpillar was female?” Well, I knew because Kim always called her “she.” My guess is that she figured males would not put up with the long birth process: egg through five ecdyses, then the fifth instar pupates, then nine months later, she ecloses, emerging as a Cecropia Moth.
What is involved in taking care of caterpillars? Mainly, feeding them, because caterpillars don’t do much besides eat. All that eating probably explains why they grew in size from that of a wingless mosquito after they eclosed into the first instar, to their length of more than five inches, even the smallest one. And just think, after their last meal as a caterpillar, they won’t eat again for nearly a year!
Our cats ate nothing but lilac leaves. The Internet suggests other leaves, including maples, but we started them on lilac leaves, and they don’t change what they eat. Fortunately, we have lilacs growing in our back yard. Unfortunately, by their 46th day they had eaten almost all the suitable leaves in our yard, so we’ve had to go to a nearby park, and we contacted friends with lilacs. And we only had twelve cats.
Let me correct that: In addition to leaves, the cats also ate their exuvia, said to be a good source of protein, but don’t tell that to the health food stores.
|Two cats with exuvia (the old skin tissue)|
What constitutes suitable leaves? Not the ones I first brought in. What makes them suitable, I learned, was not just the size and tenderness of the leaves (like a lot of females, they like them big and tough), but also the length and straightness of the stems. You see, Kim constructed two containers out of Folger’s coffee cans, perfect because the double lids gave some stability to the stems when you feed them down through the holes Kim has drilled. She changed these leaves on a daily basis, replacing the stripped branches with fresh ones.
Sometimes a caterpillar stubbornly hung onto a stem it had stripped, so Kim had to coax it onto one of the fresh ones. She found that what works best was a combination of sweet-talking, threats, and exhortations not to be stupid. Shoving fresh leaves into the hungry caterpillar’s face also worked. So went the wrangling.
These are not free-range caterpillars. We had a local carpenter construct cages for them so they would not escape to roam the house to be stepped on or eaten as a pizza topping. We stacked their two cages in our breakfast room, and caterpillar maintenance became part of our breakfast ritual.
Herding cats was not all fun and games, for they produced what is called “frass,” which is inside terminology for caterpillar poop. While the first instar frass was smaller than the head of a pin, each dropping soon became the size of a raisin. For this reason, we learned to move our cereal bowls to the side when we placed the coffee cans on the breakfast table to observe and photograph the cats. I liked the term “frass” because it allows me to say things like, “That’s a nice piece of frass!” At breakfast we could hear the frass dropping onto the floor of the cages.
Kim is more than a cat rancher. She’s a photographer. Her interests, as measured by shots taken, have evolved from birds to butterflies to caterpillars. (I’m not sure “evolved” is the right word.) So in addition to all the cat-care, our activities also involved the camera. And lights. Backdrops for the photos. Props to coax them onto. Computer time to get the images just right. The creatures are stunning to look at and even more stunning when Kim photographs them. She coined a term for the array of the beautiful creatures clinging to the lilacs in their coffee can: “a bouquet of caterpillars.”
She said it just right.
Eventually all twelve of our critters stopped their wild behavior and constructed what would be their homes for the next nine months.
But it was wild for a while. All that eating and growing! Hard to remember that when they hatched - excuse me, eclosed - they were the size of wingless mosquitoes.
After about 60 days, they measured about five inches as they stretched out to explore the little indoor lilac forest that Kim created. (For those of you challenged by measurement, look at your longest finger. It’s longer than that.)
And their appetites grew as fast as their bodies.
When they were in their 5th instar we’d see how they’d stripped almost all of the leaves we’d given them the night before, so while I drank my coffee and watched, Kim would coax them from their bare twig onto the luscious leaves she’d gathered in her pajamas, now damp from the dew. Sometimes the coaxing would take 20 minutes. And the whole process would have to be repeated in mid-afternoon, except for the part about Kim’s damp pajamas.
Then it really got crazy. As the time for cocoon spinning approached, the cats started roaming their cages, pausing to wave wildly in the air, anchored to their twigs only by the rearmost sets of tiny velcro feet.
Kim mentioned that they looked like excited penises, though I wouldn’t know anything about that. (I did, however, get some ideas for condom designs . . .). She also noted that this wild behavior before the big change was a lot like menopause. (No comment - though Kim does always refer to them as female.)
Then one morning we broke from our breakfast routine of leaf-gathering, cat-herding and frass-dumping. We noticed wet stains on the paper towels Kim used as a drop-cloth in their cages. A phone call to Ronda told us that we were experiencing “gut evacuation,” which they do prior to cocoon construction. I’m not sure exactly what was being evacuated, and I’m not sure I want to know. But somehow the DNA in these creatures was telling them that this was the right thing to do. Much the way a drunken college student may experience a gut evacuation before a resolution to make some big changes in his life.
The next step was their thorough exploration of the cages to find the best spot for the cocoon. We’d been advised that they like to wrap themselves in a leaf or two and then, once cozy (my unscientific term), proceed to create their cocoon. They tended to prefer the upper corners of the cage, and we could see them busily bending leaves and spinning silk. An occasional problem: sometimes they would choose a corner where the cage door joined the frame, making it impossible to open the door.
And since they did not all go through these steps at the same time, we did have to keep opening the door to feed the eaters and clean their frass. Kim noticed that some of the cats wanted to construct their winter home on top of their sibling’s winter home. She reasoned that this probably would not be any better for caterpillars than it is for human beings, so she would herd the crowders onto a leaf and guide them away. Not always successfully.
There followed another photo-shoot when we could see the cats at work within their shelters, where the leaves acted as roof and walls and the silk as windows curtained with gauzy silk.
This sight of them is not as spectacular as their colorful instar plumage, but in another way, it’s even more spectacular. The final structure consists of an outer not-quite covering of leaves, which the caterpillars fold and sew into place with their silk. After that, it’s difficult to see what they are doing, but the result is an outer surface of the cocoon with an inner cocoon suspended in a network of silk. And inside the inner cocoon is the gut-evacuated caterpillar goes through is slow and miraculous secret transformation.
We eventually got them all settled into their cocoon construction, the eating and frass-bombing having ceased. All but one of them. Reilly continued to move at her own pace, eating when she felt like it. Hard to think of a caterpillar as a free spirit, but there she was. Or maybe she was just having a hard time getting her shit together. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Reilly spent hours going from corner to corner of her cage. She’d start to spin a shelter against the screen walls of the cage, but without any leaves. Then she would move on. Kim tried to assist Reilly, taping lilac leaves to the side of the screen in order to give her the materials to do the job right. (In dysfunctional families this is known as “enabling.”) Finally Kim abandoned her efforts and went to bed. I figured that getting 12 out of 13 safely stashed is a higher success rate then we would find in nature, where most of the caterpillars end up digested. And it’s better than most families, where kids are not safely stashed for years, if at all.
But we awoke to find Reilly nestled in a corner with her sibs, enshrouded in silk. We watched her all day just to make sure she was really through fooling around, and then Kim sealed the edges of the cages with duct tape so that spiders and other predators couldn’t squeeze in and cause harm.
Our breakfast nook felt empty with the cats stashed in the garage for the winter . . ..
It was a long winter. We spent much of it in Michigan, with Kim healing from her surgeries and me shoveling snow and building snowmen. Our extended family was secure in the garage. We waited. We spritzed them with water from time to time because Ronda advised it. And we waited some more. Then, when Kim was sufficiently healed in late February, we went to Florida.
Where we worried. We worried that the below-zero nights would be too much for our babies. We worried, when we saw the rare spike in Michigan temperatures, that they would eclose too soon and we would arrive back in Michigan in early May to find cages full of dead moths. We worried that we worried too much. The amount of worry indicates how much we were emotionally engaged with our family.
When we returned to Michigan we found the cocoons in the garage just as we had left them. So we worried that they would never eclose, that the winter had gotten them, or we had done something wrong. To ease our worry, Kim photographed them.
We’d been in Michigan for about two weeks when the intermission ended and the show resumed. Eclosure! Kim came up from her studio in the basement to discover a large beautiful Cecropia Moth clinging to the side of the screen. Examination of the antennae told her it was a male. Time of eclose estimated at 10:30 a.m. This, of course, meant it was photo-time. Care to see our baby pictures?
The next day led to another male, also emerging when we were in another room. Kim was hoping to photograph the actual eclosure process, an event that took place only once while she was watching. (I wanted her to photograph it so I could caption the photo, “Eclose Captioned.”)
Several days went by with no further births. The males were getting restless, flapping against the screen walls of the cages. Since Cecropia Moths have such short life spans—about a week—we did not want to waste their reproductive time, so one by one we let them go. We took them out to the backyard lilac tree—the host plant from which we had been clipping leaves to feed them and use for their cocoons—and Kim carefully placed them on the twigs. And they immediately took off, perhaps sensing female pheromones somewhere in Ohio.
Succeeding days led to more eclosures, all females. Were we ever going to witness the mating orgy we had imagined? We opened a window on the front porch hoping to attract some males, but the insects that came in did not include moths. Kim took some more photos, a process that involved various backgrounds, surfaces to reflect the light, angles at which the flash was projected, shutter speeds, apertures, etc.
And we studied (and photographed) the cocoons left behind. With the help of some delicate scissor work, we cut open some of the abandoned cocoons and marveled at the construction: leaves folded over as an outside cover that helps hide the pupa from predators, then a silk cocoon, then an inner pupal chamber, and inside that, the pupa. Anyone who thinks that nature always finds the simplest way to accomplish things should examine the life-cycle and architecture of Cecropia Moths!
Kim learned that moths moisten the silk of the cocoon with a fluid that contains an acid to dissolve the silk so the moth can easily push his way out of the cocoon. Sometimes.
But sometimes this fluid is not secreted in sufficient quantity, and the moth is held prisoner in the cocoon until it dies. Kim saw one moth struggling to eclose, but it could not get out of the inner chamber, usually a soft dark fabric.
In this case it was hard, so Kim performed delicate surgery, first opening the outer cocoon and then cutting silk strands that she thought might be impeding the moth’s exit. She saw a dark stain at one end of the inner cocoon—the acid—and she noticed that the cocoon was made of a more rigid material than the other ones she had examined. She pried the small hole to make it wide enough for the moth, and it used its front two legs to work its way out. But when this moth finally emerged from the c-section, it was unable to pump out its wings, instead hanging like a wet rag from the outside of the cocoon.
After a couple of days with no progress we decided to “let it go,” which meant placing it in the garden under some protective leaves where it struggled for a few days before entering the food chain.
More waiting. One of the ladies laid some unfertilized eggs, which did not bode well for the Cecropia Moth population. So before departing for a 4-day birding trip we took the five females out to the lilac tree and, one by one, Kim carefully placed them on the twigs. Two of them stayed for a while, two flew into nearby trees and bushes, and one just flew away. That left four cocoons, looking pretty much the same as they looked nine months ago.
We returned from our trip to find no further action. We figured that most of our caterpillars had successfully worked their way through to moths, so we were pretty good caretakers. Kim took off the leaves and the outer and inner cocoons from one, just to have a look.
But they must have been waiting for us, for we’d only been back a couple of days when we came in from weeding the garden to see that a moth was hanging from the screen of the cage, slowly flapping her wings, possibly to help them harden. And then a second one.
But somehow we had never seen one eclose, possibly because we are usually doing our chores during the mid-morning period when the action takes place. But we did come upon #12 (we’d given up naming them, though Anna, our granddaughter, did name four of them) immediately after eclosure, and we got to witness, which means photograph, the process of pumping the new wings full of fluid and then hardening them for flight.
And a day later, the last of our babies was born: lucky #13. Now we had only one step in the process left to witness, completing the life-cycle: mating. We peered at the antennae to see if we had a mix of males and females, for the accident of birth order and the short breeding time meant we’d never had both sexes in the cage at the same time. But this time we had two males and two females, and they soon hooked up.
Imagine that you’ve been waiting a year to have sex, and that you have no equipment except what is required to locate a sex partner, fly to her, and mate. Wouldn’t you want that mating event to last as long as possible? Kim checked our twosomes at 3:30 a.m. – no action. But when she looked again at 5:30, they were joined together in a practical side-by-side position. (Try it with wings and see if you can come up with a better position.) This lasted until 8 p.m.
A day later the second pair joined together for about 15 hours. During this period the thoraxes of the males appeared to get smaller and somewhat shriveled. I can hardly blame them!
Once all this business was over and the laying of eggs was completed, we released the exhausted moths into the summer night. Kim collected some eggs to take out to the lilac tree so the miraculous process could begin again.
Or perhaps we would save a few (we saved 50) to watch them eclose as tiny caterpillars in about 10 days.
We have come full circle in a year and 1 month. Kim’s cancer was diagnosed shortly after we received the eggs from Ronda, and now, a year later, life is continuing, for us and for our beautiful works-in-progress.
We have a few extra eggs—does anyone want to raise Cecropia Moths????